Kirsten Flipkens’ Fairytale

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By reaching the semifinals, Kirsten Flipkens matched Kim Clijsters’ best Wimbledon run.

For the better part of a decade, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin battled each other for major titles and the World No. 1 ranking while simultaneously putting Belgium on the international sporting stage. Who would’ve ever imagined that a nation that covers just under 12,000 square miles with a population of just over 11 million people would produce not one, but two of the greatest champions in the history of women’s tennis?

Unlike other nations which have traditionally produced the game’s greats, including the United States, the Czech Republic and Russia, Belgium did not have a strong championship pedigree in tennis prior to Clijsters and Henin’s success. The pair took a comparatively small nation and turned it into a powerhouse; in addition to holding 11 Grand Slam singles titles between them, the two were ranked No. 1 in the world for a combined 137 weeks and single-handedly led Belgium to a Fed Cup title in 2001 and a final in 2006. With Clijsters and Henin both retired, the future of Belgian tennis looked bleak. A nation that once enjoyed an embarrassment of riches courtesy of two players now only boasts just three in the top 300, with the most talented players still years away. Yanina Wickmayer made a shocking run to the semifinals of the US Open in 2009 at 19 years old, but a lingering back injury and patches of inconsistent play have dimmed her once-bright promise. In Fed Cup, Belgium will compete in Europe/Africa Zone Group I in 2014 following their defeat to Poland in the World Group II Playoffs this year, the first time Belgium will compete in zonal play since 1995.

When the Belgians were looking for someone to fly their flag, they probably weren’t expecting someone who was born in the same decade as both Kim and Justine to take it up. She’s been right under their noses the whole time.

In a tournament riddled with shocks and stunners, the Cinderella story of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships is more than just that. Ten years ago, Kirsten Flipkens won the junior Wimbledon title. The Belgian defeated well-known WTA players Alisa Kleybanova, Ana Ivanovic, Jarmila Gajdosova and Anna Chakvetadze in the final en route to the title and the No. 1 junior ranking. At the end of that year, Flipkens was named the ITF Juniors Girls’ Singles World Champion. A late bloomer of sorts, Flipkens did not play in the main draw of a women’s grand slam event until the 2006 French Open, and reached back-to-back third rounds at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2009.

After ending both 2009 and 2010 inside the top 100, Flipkens dealt with a wrist injury which resulted in a year-end ranking of No. 194 in 2011. Her troubles continued in April of 2012, as Flipkens’ doctors discovered blood clots in her legs and she was sidelined for two months. Despite recovering, Flipkens learned it was a genetic problem and she still needed to wear compression socks and take blood thinners before flying. As a result, her ranking continued to free fall and she slipped to No. 262 in the world prior to last year’s Wimbledon Championships – a ranking not even high enough to contest the tournament’s qualifying event.

There were few left who believed in her, as the Flemish Tennis Federation withdrew their support from a player ranked No. 262 at 26 years of age. In a matter of a few years, Flipkens went from junior standout and 2003 Belgian Talent of the Year, to top 100 player, to another ‘what could’ve been.’ The one person who never stopped believing, however, was Flipkens herself. “Because I knew, my highest ranking then was 59 and I was 100 percent sure that I would get into the top 50 one day. So that was the main thing that kept me up,” she said earlier this year.

Up she’s gone, and she’s refused to look back. With assistance from Clijsters’ former team and Kim herself, Flipkens’ first WTA title came in Quebec City last year, and she passed her career-high of 59 by one spot as a result. After ending 2012 at 54, she made her top 50 debut after reaching the semifinals in Hobart in January. She reached the second week of a slam for the first time at the Australian Open, and made her top 30 debut after Indian Wells. She arrived in the top 20 after Roland Garros and came to Wimbledon as the No. 20 seed.

With straight set wins in her first four matches, Flipkens has played her steadiest tennis in a tournament where nothing’s been certain. In her first major quarterfinal, no one would’ve batted an eyelash had she been overwhelmed and bundled out by former champion Petra Kvitova. No one talked about or expected her to make it out of Victoria Azarenka’s depleted quarter of the draw, yet here she is. Following both her fourth round win over Flavia Pennetta and the quarterfinal win against Kvitova, Flipkens fell to her knees and kissed the grass courts – a symbolic measure of just how far she’s come.

For all that Clijsters and Henin accomplished, neither of them managed to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish at Wimbledon; Henin came the closest, as she reached the final in 2001 and 2006. At this time last year, Kirsten Flipkens was en route to winning an ITF $25,000 title in Middelburg, Netherlands. She’s been around the world and back with a game that would’ve looked at home a decade ago. 12 months later she has the chance of a lifetime, one that no one could’ve ever expected her to have, on the biggest stage in tennis. She still the biggest underdog remaining, but after all she’s overcome, there’s no doubt she’s primed for another fight.

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